Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A review of “Reconstruction: The Second Civil War”

It was the end of a civil war in which four million slaves were freed, but which failed to bring true freedom to the people on whose behalf it had largely been fought. It was called the "Reconstruction Era" because its purpose was to rebuild (and heal) a war-torn nation, but which saw almost as much violence and destruction as actual reconstruction. And it brought the vote and other rights to the former slaves of the South for a time, only to see those rights taken away almost overnight when the Reconstruction Era ended in a corrupt political deal, giving the White South almost everything it wanted.

Confederate capitol of Richmond, 1865 (the end of the war)

Much has been written about the military conflict called the "Civil War" (fought between North and South), but not as much has been written about the postwar Reconstruction period, which is perhaps even more complex politically than the war itself. Indeed, some historians have even called it the "Second Civil War," because it was characterized by anarchy, chaos, and even (at times) armed conflict; between former Union soldiers occupying the South, and former Confederate soldiers joining the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations; who were trying to undo all that the North had fought and died for.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, first leader of the Ku Klux Klan

Putting forward the "Second Civil War" interpretation of these events is a remarkable documentary by PBS, which tries to make some sense out of the complicated (and often chaotic) politics of this time. In three hours, they examine both the successes and the failures of the Reconstruction Era (and there are plenty of both); which gave people a glimpse of what a true equality between the races could be like, but which also saw the project abandoned by the North after the anarchy and violence of the period made it seem too costly; and the project was not resumed until nearly a century later, during the second (and more permanent) civil rights movement of the 1960's.

Andrew Johnson, president of the United States during part of Reconstruction

You may not enjoy this story much, as the period has far more than its share of terrible tragedy; and the ground lost as the Reconstruction period fell to pieces had bitter and painful repercussions for African Americans, which would be felt (and suffered) for generations to come. But if you want to understand what really happened after the Civil War, and how this period's great advances in civil rights were nobly gained (and then meanly lost), then "Reconstruction: The Second Civil War" is the documentary for you. This is the rise and fall of African American liberation - a story that is far from simple (and far from uplifting); but which is vitally (and even indispensably) important to understanding both the Civil War, and the broader history of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln

First, a few words about this period's successes: The successes were crowned by the "Civil War Amendments," or the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery in this country, the Fourteenth Amendment gave black people citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment gave them voting rights (or "suffrage," if you prefer). It is quite true that the Thirteenth Amendment was more the product of the war itself than its aftermath; as it was put through Congress by the Lincoln administration, and got through both houses of Congress while the war was still going on. (For more details, see my review of the Steven Spielberg "Lincoln" movie about this subject.) But the Thirteenth Amendment did not become law until it was ratified by state legislatures, and the Southern states were basically forced to ratify this Thirteenth Amendment before they could be re-admitted into the Union, on an equal footing with the states that had remained loyal (and rightly so). This was one of the great successes of the Reconstruction period, which was reinforced (at least partially) by an important part of the Fourteenth Amendment, which said that the right to vote could actually be denied (or otherwise abridged) "for participation in rebellion, or other crime" (Source: Section 2) - a way of preventing the White South from interfering with the passage of these amendments, even though it wasn't actually written into the Constitution until later. This only happened after two of those amendments had already been passed, although the denial of voting rights to former rebels was legally enforced before then as a way of preventing them from interfering with the passage of these amendments. (Whatever other slavery may have persisted after the war was over, the institution of chattel slavery - or slavery in which people were bought and sold like cattle - was forever abolished in America by the Thirteenth Amendment; and this would not have been possible without the temporary denial of voting rights to the White Southerners that had rebelled; and the voting rights were restored to the White South only after these amendments had safely been passed.) The antislavery amendment - along with the Fourteenth Amendment granting citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment granting voting rights - was one of the monumental successes of this period's history.

Freed blacks voting in New Orleans, 1867

But even during the Reconstruction period, there was little real force behind the new constitutional protections. Southerners in many states came up with a clever system of loopholes, which prohibited blacks from voting on grounds of illiteracy (slaves had been forbidden to learn to read), poll taxes (which poverty-stricken former slaves usually could not pay), and so-called "grandfather clauses" (where you could not vote if your grandfather had been a slave). This was undoubtedly contrary to the spirit of these amendments; but as far as the letter of the law went, these loopholes were perceived - emphasis on "perceived" - to conform with the letter of these constitutional amendments. Thus, the White South eventually re-established its domination of the region; and the ground gained during the Reconstruction Era was largely (and sadly) lost; compounding the terrible tragedy of this period.

Aftermath of Colfax massacre, 1873

The White South did not succeed (at least during the Reconstruction period) in stopping blacks from voting in all Southern states - there were a few states in which blacks were able to vote then, and where the legislatures of the states were heavily dominated by former slaves. This was, obviously, an improvement over the open and shameless exploitation of previous generations, which had the important benefit of making possible the actual passage of the three aforementioned amendments - which were ratified in these southern states by the black majorities in those legislatures, while the White Southern voters were still temporarily denied voting rights as punishment for rebellion. (This was, as mentioned earlier, a way of preventing them from interfering with the passage of these amendments.) But even in these regions, going to the polls could be a risky thing for black people - violent terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan were not above cold-blooded murder as a means of retaliation, and more than one African American lost his life at the polls - showing that even the best laws are useless, if they are not enforced. It is because of violent acts like this that historians sometimes label the period "The Second Civil War," and it is because of terrible tragedies like this that this period is not exactly the most uplifting one (to say the least).

You have probably sensed from my writing here that this period is enormously complex; and that the true story of the war's end defies simple account and explanation. I'm sure my brief treatment of this subject has not done it proper justice; as to truly understand the subject, it needs to be covered in more depth. But that is largely what the documentary was made for - to give the (still comparatively brief) version of Reconstruction in three hours of television, and help viewers to make sense out of the complicated political and social history of this time. It is, quite simply, an interesting time; and you'll have a broader understanding of the history of the Civil War, the struggle for civil rights, and the larger history of the country.

DVD at Amazon

Timeline of United States military history:

French and Indian War 1754-1763
American Revolutionary War 1775-1783
War of 1812 (technically 1812-1815)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848
American Civil War 1861-1865
Reconstruction 1865-1877
Spanish-American War 1898
World War One 1917-1918
World War Two 1941-1945
Cold War 1945-1991
Other wars to be covered later

See also:

Ulysses S. Grant: Warrior President (PBS program)

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